Google Alerts Press About Right To Be Forgotten Removals, Putting Those Stories Back In The News

from the institutionalized-streisanding dept

It’s 2014 and do we really need to be reminded that, when you seek to censor something by demanding that it be removed from view, it’s really only going to generate that much more attention to the original? I believe there’s even a term for that sort of thing. As you may have heard, thanks to a ridiculous ruling in the EU Court of Justice, Google is being forced to start removing links to content, based on submissions by people who wish their past embarrassments would just disappear down the memory hole. The company received tens of thousands of requests for removals based on the new ruling, and last week began removing such links from its index, following a review by the new team the company had to put together to review these requests.

It appears that, as part of its transparency efforts, Google is also telling the websites who are being delinked that they are being delinked over this, because both the BBC and the Guardian have stories up today about how they’ve had stories removed from Google thanks to the “right to be forgotten” efforts. And, guess what? Both articles dig into what original articles have been removed, making it fairly easy to determine just who was so embarrassed and is now seeking to have that embarrassing past deleted. And, of course, by asking for the content to be removed, these brilliant individuals with embarrassing histories have made both the removal attempt and the original story newsworthy all over again.

First up, is the BBC, which received a notice about one of its articles being removed from search. That article is all about Merrill Lynch chairman Stan O’Neal losing his job. In fact, the only person named in the article is… Stan O’Neal. Take a wild guess what thin-skinned former top executive to a major US financial firm must have issued a “please forget me” request to Google? The BBC’s Robert Preston — author of both articles — questions why this should be forgotten:

My column describes how O’Neal was forced out of Merrill after the investment bank suffered colossal losses on reckless investments it had made.

Is the data in it “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant”?


Most people would argue that it is highly relevant for the track record, good or bad, of a business leader to remain on the public record – especially someone widely seen as having played an important role in the worst financial crisis in living memory (Merrill went to the brink of collapse the following year, and was rescued by Bank of America).

In other words, welcome to the new world in Europe, where all sorts of important, truthful and relevant information gets deleted.

Over at the Guardian, they’ve found out that six articles from their website have been memory-holed by Google. And again, it quickly becomes clear who’s involved:

Three of the articles, dating from 2010, relate to a now-retired Scottish Premier League referee, Dougie McDonald, who was found to have lied about his reasons for granting a penalty in a Celtic v Dundee United match, the backlash to which prompted his resignation.

The Guardian does searches for McDonald on both the US and UK versions of Google and finds that McDonald’s lie is wiped from history over in the UK, while we Americans can still find it, no problem.

The other disappeared articles ? the Guardian isn’t given any reason for the deletions ? are a 2011 piece on French office workers making post-it art, a 2002 piece about a solicitor facing a fraud trial standing for a seat on the Law Society’s ruling body and an index of an entire week of pieces by Guardian media commentator Roy Greenslade.

It’s pretty likely that Paul Baxendale-Walker is the person complaining about that second article, since he’s the main subject of that article. The other two… are not clear at all. The Post-It wars story names three individuals: Julien Berissi, Stephane Heude and Emilie Cozette. But none of them are portrayed in any way that would seem negative. It just shows them having some fun by making giant post-it artwork. And the other one is just weird because it’s not an actual story, but an index page showing a week of story headlines and opening blurbs — but apparently whichever article in the list caused the request wasn’t directly included itself — suggesting whoever sent in the request did a pretty bad job of figuring out what to censor.

Either way, both the Guardian and the BBC point out how ridiculous this is. Preston, at the BBC, says this is “confirming the fears of many in the industry” that this will be used “to curb freedom of expression and to suppress legitimate journalism that is in the public interest.” Meanwhile, James Ball at the Guardian, notes how troubling this is, and starts to think of ways to deal with it, including highlighting every “deleted” article:

But this isn’t enough. The Guardian, like the rest of the media, regularly writes about things people have done which might not be illegal but raise serious political, moral or ethical questions ? tax avoidance, for example. These should not be allowed to disappear: to do so is a huge, if indirect, challenge to press freedom. The ruling has created a stopwatch on free expression ? our journalism can be found only until someone asks for it to be hidden.

Publishers can and should do more to fight back. One route may be legal action. Others may be looking for search tools and engines outside the EU. Quicker than that is a direct innovation: how about any time a news outlet gets a notification, it tweets a link to the article that’s just been disappeared. Would you follow @GdnVanished?

Preston has asked Google how the BBC can appeal, while Ball says the Guardian doesn’t believe there’s any official appeals process. Either way, it’s safe to say that (1) this process is a mess and leading to the censorship of legitimate content and (2) people like Stan O’Neal and Dougie McDonald who thought that they could hide their embarrassing pasts under this ruling may not end up being very happy in the long term.

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Companies: bbc, google, guardian, merrill lynch

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Comments on “Google Alerts Press About Right To Be Forgotten Removals, Putting Those Stories Back In The News”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

How about adding a new category to their sites, ‘Pages that someone wanted gone’, where they can link to all the pages/articles that someone tried to get de-listed.

They could even get people really involved in it, have open comment sections where people can go back and forth, discussing the who and what, and who they think tried to get the thing to be buried, something like that would likely get people interested and engaged in pages that were all but forgotten, driving up the number of visitors and page hits they get.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Doesn’t fully solve the problem, however.

If I run into a guy at a business conference, and decide to look him up – what good does it do me if all the negative press about him is hidden in a bunch of websites’ “gone” lists. What I’m really looking for is information about this person aggregated in a search result – and that’s exactly what these people don’t want.

I can agree that the world has significantly changed with the internet, and search engines – but you can’t hide from it, people need to change their behavior. Unfortunately some people didn’t do that soon enough (or ever for that matter).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Someone could create a search engine of deleted content and position itself to deal with the legal aspects as much as possible (ie: by locating themselves in a country favorable towards keeping content up and going through the trouble of ensuring that every takedown request is fully legitimate before taking any content down or else fighting the legal battle to its end). Then all I have to do is search that engine for said person and see if aggregated there.

Even if it’s taken down in the EU if I’m a multi national employer wanting to look up someone I can have an employee look up the person in the U.S. and have someone else look them up in the EU and if they show up in one and not the other I can take their thin skin into consideration before hiring them. Any multi-national employer will have branches all over the world and so they could get info on you no matter what country you are censored in.

ethorad (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Someone could set up a search engine to do the US and EU searches for you. I think there was a version of google image search someone had done which would run the same search twice – once with safe filter on, and once with it off – and then just return the pictures which were filtered.

Instead of a porn-mode image search, how about a Streisand-mode web search which just returns the stuff people want deleted?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

The problem is clearly the lack of limitations on RTBF. The “anything goes” we see today is completely the same as the censorship regime the chinese use to “forget” the Tiananmen Square massacre and critical comments about the government.

If the right to be forgotten was a “10 year or further back”-issue and several more restrictions to delineate the issue it is what was promised. The things we see here is straight up state-enabled censorship of media without sufficient justification.

Cerberus (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I think Google is interpreting the verdict in a much broader way than it was intended; I believe the court excluded facts that could be important for society, politics, etc. Google may be doing this on purpose, in order to show the world how bad the ruling was (and, as a European, I would support Google in this: the court’s censorship is stupid).

bob (profile) says:

engines outside the EU

if searching for a person why not just use Bing or Yahoo?
they still list the links to these articles don’t they?
or wil the EU now go after yahoo and MS to offer similar ‘RTBF’ services?
and then after the second/third tier search engines?
I’m confused by the logic and the morality of targeting just 1 engine.
does the EU realize there are other engines that keep their own listings?
were these questions asked during the trial/legislation period that got this process approved?

DogBreath says:

Wikipedia is like an Elephant...

never forgets, never forgives:

CNBC includes O’Neal in their list of “Worst American CEOs of All Time”. The New York Times Magazine on April 18, 2010 described O’Neal as one of the “feckless dolts” who helped precipitate the financial crisis of 2007. During the final hearings prior to the firm’s merger with Bank of America, numerous people – including a founder’s son, Win Smith – laid the blame on O’Neal for the firm’s downfall and loss of independence.

In 2014, in the aftermath of the Google Spain v AEPD and Mario Costeja González case, a BBC article on O’Neal’s removal was removed from Google searches in the EU.

McDonald was the referee at the famous win by Inverness Caledonian Thistle over Celtic in the Scottish Cup in 2002 which prompted the renowned headline in The Sun – “Super Caley Go Ballistic Celtic are Atrocious”. McDonald was warned by the Scottish Football Association for failing to clearly explain a correct decision in a match played between Dundee United and Celtic in October 2010. Subsequent to the match, McDonald admitted that he had not correctly informed the match observer about how the decision had been changed. McDonald was censured by the SFA Referee Committee but continued as a top flight referee. Although many suspected that the fallout over the incident eventually led to the first ever Scottish football referee strike, on 27 November 2010, in fact it was the abuse targeted at William Collum and other referees after subsequent matches, plus a growing feeling of a lack of support from the SFA Disciplinary and General Purposes Committees, that led to the strike. McDonald retired with immediate effect the day after the strike as media pressure on him became unwarranted.

In 2014 articles relating to McDonald were removed from Google’s search results under EU Right to be forgotten legislation.

Just in case anyone is wondering if the “Right To Be Forgotten” has its own theme song (or should have), the answer is Y-E-S… Yes it does.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Wikipedia is like an Elephant...

Wikipedia seems pretty good at forgetting, especially if the citations suffer from link rot.

I was once accused of anti-DRM naughtiness on Digg and elsewhere. The claim eventually made it’s way into Wikipedia for a few months.

Once the claim was edited out, it never returned. It’s still in the page history, but that doesn’t show up in search engines. You’d have to already know it was there to find it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Wikipedia is like an Elephant...

The EU right to be forgotten legislation doesn’t apply to Wikipedia, since it’s not a search engine. It could be used to remove the wikipedia article from search engine results though.

Even for the stories “forgotten” in the article, the stories all still exist (as linked by the article), they simply no longer appear in searches on EU-hosted search engines.

DogBreath says:

Re: Re: Wikipedia is like an Elephant...

In reality all this EU law will do, since it doesn’t apply to search engines outside of EU control, is make the people looking for information on individuals use a wider choice of search engines not under EU control.

Thusly soundly defeating the “Right to be Forgotten” law, and make those particular individuals look like the fools (ostriches with heads in the sand) that everyone else knows they are.

When the EU makes it a crime to bypass the “Right to be Forgotten” law (the new “Use a foreign search engine, go to jail” law), then we need to worry.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Wikipedia is like an Elephant...

For a very small subset of internet users, I agree with you. I suspect some in the EU may have changed their Google options to search rather than their local variant, across all of their devices. I further suspect that most in the EU don’t know how to do this and/or don’t know why they might want to do this.

For most people, some of whom don’t know (or care) the difference between google and the internet, they won’t even realise that they are seeing a filtered list of results. Some of the rest may consider that they want a filtered list of results, since that’s kind of the point of doing a search in the first place (arguably, misguidedly?).

As noted below, the EU law is an excellent foot in the door for drafting legislation that will require the content HOST to filter the content in the EU. Because privacy!

Crazy Canuck says:

It’s nice that the large media companies like the Guardian and BBC are looking into a possible appeal process. I’m just a little bit jaded though, I bet if an appeal process is setup that it will be limited to the major media outlets. Any smaller company or blogger will not have any say to fight potential abusive censorship. It’ll be another ContentID setup where the major players and the lawyers abuse for their own benefits while screwing everyone else in the process.

So we’ll have the people who want to censor public information, the major media who want their own personal gain, and the rest of us peons.

Kasper says:

Who decided that these stories were worthy of forgetting?

(Devils advocate warning)
Who decided that the stories mentioned in the article weren’t worthy of remembering?
Did a judge decide?
Did Google auto-block all links collected from their form?

Or did Google hand-pick some links that obviously shouldn’t be censored, censor them and then inform the original journalists (who might also have been selected based on their place of work and how likely they were to pick up on the story)?

Beta (profile) says:

FLASH: Guardian wakes up at last

Where was this journalistic outrage when the ruling was still in the works?

On the 16th of May, the day of the ruling, the Guardian printed an article by this same James Ball about it that can be summed up as “ooh, this will be tricky for Google”. And now that juicy Guardian articles are getting blanked, now he’s up in arms.

They ought to think about renaming that paper…

Anonymous Coward says:

paper copies?

How much of this stuff is in paper copies of newspapers delivered door to door?

Are they going get a search warrant for all the newspaper customers and go door to door with a pair of scissors, and pull the newspaper out from under the cat food bowls and cut out the articles?

Are they going to get a search warrant and search the videos of hotels where the paper is sold in newstands, and track these people down at airports?

What about people who bought the newspapers on the corner at a bus stop? How are you going to find these people? Search the bus dumpsters and landfills?

Here we go with another comedy sketch – in the style of Red Skelton, Carol Burnett, Sanford and Son, and Frasier.

AnonyBabs says:

Re: Re: paper copies?

I don’t think AC is confused. He/she is pointing out the ridiculousness of a “right to be forgotten”. If such a right exists, then it can’t be bound by mere internet. Paper copies must be “forgotten”. Knowledge in people’s brains must be “forgotten”. It’s all or nothing, baby.

John85851 (profile) says:

Nice jobs

First, I like how Google is being passive aggressive about this issue by letting The Guardian and BBC republish articles that Google should have “de-linked”. Nice job- the person will have to file another “remove me” notice, which the BBC will pick up on, report on it, and that will require a new “remove me” notice.

Second, to all the people who complain about the bad law- how in the world did it get passed in the first place? Did NO ONE (except TechDirt) realize the side-effects that the law would cause? Why is everyone so upset NOW?
Sure, they can appeal the law and try to get it over-turned, but wouldn’t it have been easier to make sure it didn’t get passed in the first place?

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